Linguistic isolation

I was thinking last week about how isolating it is to not be able to express oneself in spoken language. I am naturally quite chatty – I love talking to old ladies at bus stops, for example, and I’ll happily strike up a conversation with a stranger – but the words don’t come so easily in Spanish, and my level of speaking is still quite rudimentary really, so I end up being very mute and locked in my own mind.

It’s frustrating. Especially when I’m so agile in my native language, more than most. It’s also a Catch 22: there’s no better way to learn a language than to use it, but as a relatively recent immigrant to a new country it’s also very important to build relationships and get to know people. I find this very hard in Spanish, beyond the basics. So most of my close friends here are English speakers (from all over!). It’s no wonder that humanity is so tribal; we connect much more easily when we share culture, particularly language. And not having a common language is very much a barrier.

But I plough on, determined to become more fluent and effortlessly bilingual, overcoming my native English speaker guilt at being so pathetic with other languages. I was back in the UK recently, and it was a (surprising) relief to be linguistically comfortable. I really hadn’t realised quite how much I take it for granted and how much not being so fluent affects me here in Barcelona.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the English language itself, as I wind up my teaching and head out in a slightly new direction doing intercultural training. The kind of English I speak, UK English, is more like a local dialect these days. I was struck using this very interesting TED talk in a class this week by how much of what we as Brits say is idiomatic, phrasal verbs all over the place, the sounds of words are all squished together. We are very difficult for the second language learner to understand.

In contrast, ‘international’ English does what it can to avoid things like phrasal verbs, and use a more simple, ‘standard’ (often Latin-based) verb instead, maybe discover instead of find out. As someone who delights in the playful, metaphorical, kinaesthetic nature of English, losing this clearly pains me. But as a communicator, choosing simpler forms is completely understandable. And British English will continue in all its wonderful diversity and its long shape-shifting history; it just really isn’t the universally understood language we believe it is.

Because, somewhat amazingly, English has become the global language. I think it must be its flexibility and how it’s quite easy to learn the basics, because pronunciation – and with it listening comprehension – is a complete nightmare (compare through, though, and thought: same letter pattern, three different sounds). Even though the ubiquity of English makes it even harder for me to become bilingual, I am very aware of how fortunate I am to have it as my native language and also that I know how to slip into international English when I need to. So perhaps I already am bilingual after all.

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